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July 3, 2007 12:45 PM   Subscribe

So I've become pretty obsessed with 'I Want You Back' - the Jackson 5 song. How do I play and write that kind of music?

I know that the 5 were essentially a combination of Motown and bubblegum pop, and that 'I Want You Back' and some of their other hits were written by The Corporation. I'm there interested in the music theory / general idea / themes of motown and anything related. Especially the guitar work in the aforementioned song - how that is formed and composed, generally?

posted by tmcw to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should start by drawing a clear line in the sand between the music, and the production.

Do you like the actual song, or the production, which is to say, the overall sound?

Try playing the melody of the song on your chosen musical instrument. If you do, you'll find I Want You Back is pretty damn simple. I've a feeling it takes place within the space of just five notes, maybe the particular five notes that Jackson sounded best singing at the time (think of With a Little Help From My Friends, by Lennon/McCartney, written within five notes because that was all Ringo could manage). The accompanying chords are the standard 1, 4, 5 progression, I think.

So your question probably is: How do I reproduce the Jackson 5 sound?

It's dangerous to be taken in too much by studio production. That's not really what music is about, any more than cookery is about adding sugar to everything to make it taste nicer.
posted by deeper red at 12:57 PM on July 3, 2007

Response by poster: A lot of it is the music itself - for instance, the guitar work that you hear with the lines "Trying to live without your love..." is pretty interesting.

I wouln't be doing any production... I'm writing songs for live performance (with a flexible band) next year.

Also, any info on the whole Motown chord progression / rhythm, etc would rock.
posted by tmcw at 1:11 PM on July 3, 2007

It's.......not easy to write a melody that good, and to find someone like Michael Jackson to sing it. IMO the two outstanding components of the song.
posted by fire&wings at 1:27 PM on July 3, 2007

I'm not very helpful with the guitar work, but the James Jamerson transcription book "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" will certainly help your bass player nail that Motown bass style. I've found myself slipping stuff from it in to my playing without realizing it, especially in my descending runs. It could also help you figure out the chord progressions and some of the harmonic stuff going on in the background.

A lot of the guitar work in the Motown/Jackson sound seems to rely on a jazz background and being comfortable inverting/simplifying chords.
posted by Benjy at 1:28 PM on July 3, 2007

I just wanted to chime in that I have been similarly obsessed with the same song for about two months now. I've always loved Motown, but for some reason this is the song I latched on to as I've been making the transition from Bel Canto vocal training to learning guitar and playing around with more modern chord structures.
posted by annathea at 1:47 PM on July 3, 2007

There's an 'I Want You Back' remix, by DJ Z-Trip (it's the highlight of the rather unessential Motown Remixed album). I bring this up because Motown gave Z-Trip access to the original masters, and his remix makes it much easier to hear some of the stuff that's going on in the song (here's an NPR segment about the album, which also includes audio of the Z-Trip remix, and commentary from Oliver Wang).
posted by box at 2:08 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Worth watching: KT Tunstall covering the song
posted by tumble at 2:17 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The chords to the song as a whole are actually surprisingly adventurous. But you don't need to be clever to achieve a bit of the same pop magic.

I reckon one of the biggest joys of the original Jacksons recording is the way the A flat guitar wackachack note keeps going against the changing bass line throughout the majority of the song.

Try that as a starting point - it works best on the piano. Bang out a rhythm on one note in the right hand, almost like a morse code, and then experiment with a moving bassline or some changing chords in the left hand.

It's a trick used all the time - think about "Wichita Lineman" or "Space Oddity", both of which use the same one-note effect.
posted by skylar at 2:33 PM on July 3, 2007

No many how many times I hear it, I can't believe an ELEVEN YEAR OLD kid sung that song.
posted by skjønn at 3:16 PM on July 3, 2007

No matter how many times I hear it, I can't believe Jermaine Jackson came up with that bass line as a teenager. (Then I looked it up and, of course, he didn't.)

The bass is sick in that song!
posted by Ike_Arumba at 3:33 PM on July 3, 2007

Aren't the piano and bass playing the same notes during the opening of the song? That entire bass part rocks.

It might also help if you sport a fuzzy lavender pimp hat like MJ does in part of this video (which, annoyingly, isn't synched to the vocals) or this live version from the Ed Sullivan Show.

The first video has a April 1971 Michael Jackson cover of Rolling Stone with the headline "Why does this eleven year old stay up past his bedtime?

"ABC" on American Bandstand (probably lip-synched).

I like KT Tunstall, but thought her cover was tedious. I liked this one better.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:38 PM on July 3, 2007

The Z-Trip remix is absolutely brilliant -- the guitar and the additional percussion just kill me -- but see if you can find Graham Parker's cover somewhere for a more stripped down version.
posted by maudlin at 3:39 PM on July 3, 2007

Best answer: This amateur talks his way through a version that is supposed to be somewhat like Parker's cover, so you might find it useful.

This is a longshot, but if you can ever find the flexidisk or an mp3 of "Play in a day the Billy Bragg Way" from his first songbook, that Motown-loving bignosed socialist may teach you a few new things about putting together a song.
posted by maudlin at 3:47 PM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

To me, what makes that song is the descending bit at "Oh, baby, give me one more chance..." It kills, it really does. But there are so many other killer parts of that song -- it's a classic for sure.

I was in a band that did "I Want You Back" and it was always great fun. We just couldn't help getting an energy boost from the music when we played it. But it's not the easiest song in the world to sing -- it really is impressive that an 11 year old sang it so well. (For more amazing MJ vocals from that era, see "Who's Lovin' You".)

I think what defines the song is the combination of the high energy, with a funky bassline and guitar, and a killer pop hook in a major key that makes it just sound happy. (Which is sort of odd, given the subject matter of the song.)

There is another "I Want You Back" that is a great pop song, but very different -- the one by the Hoodoo Gurus.
posted by litlnemo at 3:52 PM on July 3, 2007

Best answer: Transcribe the bass line.

The rhythm, use of chromatic notes and chord progression it outlines makes the song. If you come from a more classical background you'll really notice how much those chromatic notes contribute to the feel.
posted by distrakted at 4:17 PM on July 3, 2007

Mod note: The call-and-response vocals, different singers singing different lines, and bass "I want you back" vocals toward the end are great, too.

Yep, the Hoodoo Gurus' "I Want You Back" is pretty great.
Caution: video contains scary dinosaurs and dorky dudes.
posted by kirkaracha (staff) at 4:38 PM on July 3, 2007

Best answer: My basic advice is to experiment with the music yourself instead of having an anonymous bunch of internet users like me tell you what to do. To be more specific:

(1) Find yourself a bunch of other similar songs. These shouldn't be hard to come up with, e.g. ABC by Jackson 5. Using Pandora or Amazon should be more effective than Asking Metafilter.

(2) For a given song, learn to play multiple instruments' parts (even if you don't play every instrument). Don't just focus on how awesome the guitar is; figure out what each instrument is doing, especially the less conspicuous ones. This should be easy given how straightforward a song like I Want You Back is. (If you feel you're not good at figuring out music by ear, then either find the sheet music, or better yet, start honing your talents with this song!)

(3) Get some friends together to play the different parts together and have fun with it.

(4) Write your own music that blatantly rips off these songs.

(5) Repeat.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:26 PM on July 3, 2007

Graham Parker's version is great. Definitely worth tracking down. It's on Squeezing out Sparks.
posted by about_time at 6:14 AM on July 4, 2007

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